Time To Think About Charlotte
Curt Cavin, of The Indianapolis Star, had a reader of his Q&A ask about the possibility of the IndyCar Series returning to Charlotte; the heart of NASCAR country. His response was intriguing and dead-on accurate. I am a Tennessee native and have lived here for most of my life. However, I lived in Charlotte, NC in the late nineties and early 2000’s, so I have a very close perspective to the IRL – Charlotte situation.
I was actually in attendance at the 1999 IndyCar race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte. I had taken my two kids along with my brother and his wife. It was a perfect night for a race. The temperature was a little cool for the Saturday night crowd of over 50,000. This event took place on the first of May, and there was a noticeable buzz about the stands. This was to be the momentum-building prelude leading into Indy for the Month of May.
The race was beginning to take shape when John Paul, Jr. and Stan Wattles collided coming out of turn four on lap sixty-one. They both slammed into the outside wall and skidded along the front-stretch, causing the car of Scott Harrington to spin as well. Debris was sprayed into the crowd as suspension parts and a tire made their way over the fence. Sadly, three fans were killed and many other spectators were seriously injured. Ninety minutes after the crash, (then) LMS President H.A. "Humpy " Wheeler announced that the event would not continue out of respect for those that had lost their lives.
The aftermath in Charlotte during the coming days and weeks was predictable. Lawsuits were quickly announced while fans grumbled for ticket refunds. Day after day went by as the local media targeted open-wheel racing as the ultimate villain for this tragedy. Humpy Wheeler himself, decried the very existence of open-wheel cars, while making it clear he never wanted the IRL to run at his racetrack ever again.
Lowe’s Motor Speedway is the flagship property of several tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI), which is under the control of Bruton Smith. This was the first of five races the IRL was to run at SMI tracks that season. The others were at Las Vegas, Atlanta and two races at Texas. Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas all have their own nuances but are virtually identical tracks, offering very close racing at fast speeds. Texas is the only remaining SMI track of that group, still on the current IndyCar schedule. Kentucky Speedway, another IndyCar track, was bought by SMI in 2008.
Curt Cavin is correct in his assessment that the IndyCar fan base was growing in the Charlotte market. Although Charlotte is the heart and soul of NASCAR with most of the teams based in nearby Mooresville; Charlotte itself is a melting pot of transplants from all over—sharing a similar demographic profile with Atlanta, only smaller. As a resident at the time, I can attest to the fact that open-wheel racing had already caught on in Charlotte when this tragedy took place – and this was at the height of the open-wheel war in the U.S.
Please don’t think I am minimizing the loss of life at Charlotte that evening –quite the contrary. I was there when it happened and everyone in attendance was quite shaken, including myself. As the large crowd filed out, it was very somber and the silence was deafening. That being said, from a marketing standpoint, the timing of this was very unfortunate. Just as this new style of racing was beginning to gain a foothold in this region, the storm of bad publicity was launched locally and never let up…and Humpy Wheeler was the ringleader.
Wheeler criticized everything about open-wheel racing from the organization to the looks of the cars. He claimed that IndyCars were unsafe and that they went so fast that the crowd couldn’t even read a sponsor’s name on the car. How ironic that Humpy should criticize the safety of the IRL, but would later install a SAFER barrier at his track that was invented originally for IndyCars at IMS (not by NASCAR, to the chagrin of Darrell Waltrip). Humpy’s attacks in the local media were relentless. By the time the official announcement was made that the IRL would not be returning, the entire Carolina region gave a collective cheer.
Like Curt Cavin, I am amazed to hear Humpy Wheeler’s name mentioned as a possible successor to Tony George either at IMS or leading the IndyCar Series. I don’t see Wheeler as a fit for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because he has the reputation as a showman, a modern PT Barnum known for outrageous stunts. The Speedway has no need for someone to be shot out of a cannon to draw crowds. Some of his marketing prowess may be useful with the IRL however, but his age (71) may prove prohibitive for that position. But I can’t see Humpy even being interested in such a post, given his stance against IndyCars just ten years ago. Instead, I think we should utilize Humpy’s departure from LMS from another angle.
Now that Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte is out of the hands of Humpy Wheeler, perhaps it is a venue that may be worth consideration again by the IRL. A lot has happened since that fateful night ten years ago. Immediately after that incident, wheel-tethers became mandatory, not only on IRL cars, but also in CART. SMI replaced the catch fencing with a taller, stronger and redesigned structure at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and all of their other tracks. Plus, this isn’t the IRL of Dr. Jack Miller and Tyce Carlson. If the Carolina region embraced the league then, I’m sure today’s crop of post-unification drivers would find a following. And before the foreign driver argument is brought up, I’ll remind you that the starting lineup in that race featured many foreign drivers as well.
My only real question about the viability of returning to Charlotte would be the impact on the Richmond race. Both races would draw from the same nearby region, which admittedly is predominantly NASCAR country. Depending on where both are placed on the schedule, I’m not sure the region could support both of them.
But the Charlotte market is a gold mine, both financially and demographically. The track produced some great races while the IRL was there – just a tick slower than Texas, which isn’t a bad thing. Even if Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham is added to the 2010 schedule, the IndyCar Series needs a southeastern oval in it’s mix…and not just because I live in the region. The Kentucky track is actually near the Cincinnati market. Richmond is most closely aligned to the DC market. After the IRL left Nashville, there is no race in the southeast. Florida doesn’t count, because the Florida market is one market unto itself.
The IRL brand is still affixed to ovals and the southeastern United States is still among the fastest growing areas of the country. I understand the appeal to look at foreign markets – especially Brazil, but this is still and always will be, a North American based racing series. With Humpy Wheeler no longer calling the shots, and so many other things that have changed in the last ten years, I think the IndyCar Series would benefit by looking very closely at revisiting Charlotte.